School Buses Refresher Course

What Emergency Responders Should Know About Them

From the vehicle extrication e-Newsletter, sponsored by

By Leigh Hollins

School bus incidents present unique challenges for emergency responders throughout the country, from Boston to Key West, from Seattle to San Diego and everywhere in between. Every firefighter, paramedic, EMT, and law enforcement officer who responds to a vehicle collision call may potentially be dealing with a major school bus incident and should prepare for it. It’s like having an airport in your response area: sooner or later there will be a plane crash. The following information should allow you to better prepare yourself when you are faced with a school bus incident.

The Problem

The problems presented to emergency responders are many. One is the extra heavy duty construction. In the age of building cars and trucks lighter and out of alternate materials such as fiberglass and aluminum, the school bus is still “built like a tank.” This is a double-edged sword: although it is a great benefit for those riding in the bus, mainly our children, it is sometimes extremely difficult to displace the strong metal from which a school bus is constructed in the event of a major collision. This problem will be addressed later in this article.

Something that many of us may not realize is school bus driver training and bus maintenance. All student transportation providers, whether public or private, are required to meet licensing, training, and maintenance requirements that have been set by the federal government and may be enhanced by local or state law. I’m sure that many accidents and collisions are prevented because of these requirements. The problem is that once these transportation providers sell or donate a bus to the local church or preschool, the laws are no longer in effect but people still ride the buses. Compare a school bus that drops kids off at the local public school to one used by the local canoe outfitter and chances are you will see a major difference in the overall condition of the bus. I doubt the college kid driving the canoe bus has had any special training, yet both he and a school bus driver are transporting a large number of people, day in, day out. My guess is that, mile for mile, the potential for a major incident lies with the canoe bus. Is that a padlock I see on the rear door of the canoe bus? Are those tires bald? Is that brake fluid dripping on the ground? You get the point.

School Bus Types

School buses are grouped into four types: A, B, C, and D. Approximately 90 percent of the present school bus fleet in the U.S. are type C or D buses. The type of school bus is a critical factor to responders for several reasons. The type determines the bus’s:
• size,
• weight,
• occupant capacity,
• front exit location,in relation to the front wheels,
• number and location of additional exits, and
• engine location.

The following definitions from Florida School Bus Specifications by the Florida Department of Education can be generally applied in most states.

A type A school bus is a conversion or body constructed upon a van type compact truck or a front section vehicle, with a gross weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less, designed for carrying more than 10 persons.

A type B school bus is a conversion or body constructed and installed upon a van or front section vehicle chassis or stripped chassis, with a vehicle rate rating of more than 10,000 pounds, designed for carrying more than 10 persons. Part of the engine is beneath and/or behind the windshield and beside the driver’s seat. The entrance door is behind the front wheels.

A type C school bus is a body installed upon a flat back cowl chassis with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds, designed for carrying more than 10 persons. All of the engine is in front of the windshield and the entrance door is behind the front wheels.

A type D school bus is a body installed upon a chassis, with the engine mounted in the front, midship, or rear, with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds, designed for carrying more than 10 persons. The engine may be behind the windshield and beside the driver’s seat; it may be at the rear of the bus, behind the rear wheels, or midship between the front and rear axles. The entrance door is ahead of the front wheels.

School Bus Features

There are many features on a school bus that are important to emergency responders. Most of these features will make our job easier while others may make it more difficult or present hazards. It is also important to realize that all buses will not have all the features, therefore school bus training and size-up become an important part of the emergency response plan.

• Bumpers: 3/16th-inch steel, wrap-around type will be found on most buses. They offer great protection when impacted by smaller vehicles, which typically go under the bus. Bumpers may be used as a cribbing point for stabilization, since they are bolted directly to the frame and do not contain any shock absorbers, such as found on smaller vehicles.

• Side windows: Most are mounted in an aluminum frame, from the inside, and can be easily removed, as a whole, with simple hand tools. Only the top half opens, providing an insufficient opening for egress or access (12- x 24-inch). Emergency windows will be marked and hinged at the top or on the side (newer models), providing approximately a two foot square opening. The glass is typically tempered (fragments when broken).

• Front, rear, and door windows: All are mounted by means of a rubber two-piece gasket that is easily removed with hand tools. The front windshield will be safety glass (two layers laminated to a thin plastic middle sheet). Rubber mounted windows are typically safety glass.

• Front door: Will provide up to a 30- x 85-inch opening. There are too many variations to include in this article (one- or two-piece, bi-fold, pneumatic, manual, etc.). The important point is to look it over to determine the easiest method if you must force it. If the bus is upright, this will be one of your primary access/egress points , as long as it has not been crushed in. (remember that on B or C buses, this door is behind the front wheel: on a type D bus it is in front of the wheel and vulnerable to a front-end impact)

• Rear door: Will provide up to a 40- x 56-inch opening. All are hinged on the right and are secured by either a single point or a three-point latching device. No matter what position the bus is in, this will be one of your primary access/egress points (rear engine type D buses will not have a rear door, but the full-width rear window functions as an emergency exit and an additional side exit will be provided).

• Side door: Will provide up to a 32- x 56-inch opening. A side door is normally provided on newer buses with a seating capacity of over 30. The door will be on the left side of the bus, midship. An additional side exit door may be provided on the right side. A single- or three-point device will be used. When opened, a seat will be in the way, which may or may not fold up. Wheelchair school buses will have a right side door (away from traffic) that will have a hydraulic chair lift mounted behind it, providing up to a 46- x 62-inch opening when the lift platform is down.

• Roof hatches: Most provide an opening of approximately 18 to 24 inches square, although those on wheelchair buses may be up to 30 inches square. Older hatches have latches only on the inside, while newer models have latches on the interior and the exterior of the hatch. Hatches make a good access point but a poor egress point. If the bus is on its side, the rear door or front windshield is preferred for egress because of the larger size of the opening. (presently in Florida, one hatch is required for 35 or less capacity buses and two for larger capacity)

• Seats: The driver’s seat is typically a commercial bucket type, while the passenger seats are bench type. The bench seats are one-inch tubular steel frame and are attached to the floor by bolts or screws. The side of the bench seat that is against the wall of the bus is screwed or bolted to a lip that extends from the interior skin approximately one inch. Since the mid 70’s, all new seat backs have been the high back style. The seat benches and backs are cushioned and covered with flame-resistant covers.

• Seat belts: Of the 50 states, only a handful require them to be installed in new buses. Only New Jersey requires their use. There is an ongoing debate, resurrected after each major school bus incident, about whether seat belts do more harm than good on a school bus. Another problem is the enforcement and liability to the driver and the transportation company. You will however find seat belts in use on school buses transporting students with “special learning disabilities” and/or wheelchair students. Wheelchair buses will also have restraint systems to hold the chairs down.

• Aisle: The aisle of a typical school bus will be 12 inches wide and the headroom will be 70 to 74 inches. Wheelchair buses sometimes have aisles that are 30 inches wide. The combination of a 12-inch aisle and high back seats make backboard operations inside an upright bus very difficult.

• Batteries: The location of the battery/batteries can vary widely. Generally, there will be an exterior compartment on the left side near the front. If this is not the case, check the engine compartment. As with other vehicles, the batteries may need to be disconnected in certain cases, even if there is a battery switch at the driver’s area. it is important to recognize and disconnect the negative side first to prevent arcing.

• Fuels: Although gasoline was a popular fuel for school buses in the past, most new buses are diesel. The fuel tank is located on the right side, behind the entrance door. This area will be well protected for crash protection purposes. Alternate fuels include propane (LPG), liquid natural gas (LNG), and compressed natural gas (CNG). LPG is the most commonly used alternate fuel, accounting for 73 percent, according to one survey. What this means is that we cannot assume the fuel type; we must confirm and deal with it accordingly.

Rescue & Extrication Tactics

Most school bus incidents require the same skills as other vehicle collision incidents: basic fire, medical, and vehicle extrication skills (usually to deal with the people in the car who collided with the bus). The three instances that do not meet this criteria and require specialized training are school bus incidents with mass casualties (MCI), incidents with heavy bus damage and serious injuries, or incidents with both.

This portion of the article is meant to give you a broad overview of techniques and tactics to use in the event you require the specialized training for a major school bus incident. The information contained in this portion is best learned when you actually go out and practice during a hands-on training drill. I strongly recommend that you acquire a school bus for training purposes and practice the following techniques. Only then will you have a well-rounded knowledge of school bus rescue practices. I also recommend that you attend a course on mass casualty Incidents.


There are many considerations that must be dealt with during a major incident. Most of these considerations are the basics, and therefore will only be mentioned briefly, since this article is dealing with specialized advanced techniques. However the basics should not be overlooked and should apply to every incident. Some considerations include the following:

• Incident Command/Management: For any major incident, scene control and coordination is one of the most important functions. Incident management will allow the proper resources to operate within the command structure and offer the flexibility required when dealing with major emergency incidents.
• “Walkaways” will occur if the incident is near the school or the student’s home.
• Parents may show up at the scene.
• Use the “inner/outer circle” method to size up the scene.
• Call for additional resources early.
• Basic extrication tools may not be enough.
• Additional materials may be required for proper stabilization.
• Secure any hazards.
• Stabilize the bus.


Your number one priority is to make the scene safe and gain access to the patients. Once this is accomplished, the scope of the incident should be determined. This will determine what and how many resources will be needed. Another priority will be to gain a primary egress point or points. It is imperative that the flow of rescuers, equipment, and patients be one way, if at all possible. This can be accomplished by using the openings that already exist, expanding those that exist, or creating your own. The latter is a difficult, time consuming procedure, no matter what part of the bus it is done on.

There are three situations you may encounter dealing with the position of the bus after a collision or crash:: the bus is upright, the bus is on its side, or bus is on its roof. Each will present special problems. The following information examines some of these problems and offers some solutions to be able to accomplish your primary objectives (access and egress), during incidents with minor or moderate bus damage.

• Upright bus: This situation should present few problems, unless major damage to the bus exists. The main access point will be the entrance door and the main egress point will be the rear or side door.

• Bus on its side: As a general rule, the rear door or rear window (rear engine models) will be the main access point and the front windshield should be removed for the main egress point. Roof hatches should also be given consideration. The rear door can be enlarged, if need be, by removing the rear windows and the posts between the door opening and the window. If the bus is on its right side, the rear door, which hinges on the right, will open easily and fold out of the way. However, if the bus is on its left side, the door will need to be removed or secured open. A bus on its side can present multiple problems: leaking fuel, limb entrapment under the bus, occupants hanging from seat belts or otherwise entangled, and so on.

• Bus on its roof: The main entrance door, if undamaged, will be the main access point and the rear door or rear window (rear engine models) will be the main egress point. If the main entrance door is damaged, the rear door or rear window (rear engine models) will be the main access point and the front windshield will be the main egress point.

Once the access and egress points have been established, command should be notified so all personnel can be advised. The path between these two points will be your rescue corridor. All rescuers, equipment, and patients should flow through this one-way corridor. Most school bus incidents will not involve any additional specialized knowledge (other than this).

It is the few rare incidents that will test your knowledge and skills to the limit. It is for these incidents that we must become a specialist in our field, much like high angle or confined space rescue. During these rare school bus incidents, we are faced with heavy bus damage, vehicle and/or patient entanglement, patient entrapment, and critical traumatic injuries.

The following techniques, each briefly described, will be required to meet the primary objectives (access and egress) during incidents of severe bus damage;

• Main entrance door removal: There will probably be an easier way into the bus if the entrance door is unusable, although a slightly jammed door or opening mechanism problem may be worth the effort. Complete door removal is possible and depends upon the style of door (two-piece, bi-fold, etc.). The removal of the glass and the use of a reciprocating saw will be required.

• Rear/side door removal: The easiest method is to remove the door at the hinges. A problem presents itself if the hinges are in the door jamb and the bolts are not accessible. The ease with which you can remove the door with hydraulic spreaders depends upon whether the latching device is a one- or three-point latch, either of which can become a very difficult operation. I have observed some of the biggest and best rescue personnel armed with hydraulic spreaders lose a battle with a rear door. As an option, the windows in the rear door can be removed and the middle of the door cut out with a reciprocating saw.

• Side window removal: This is a fairly easy task, provided you do it from the inside. There will be two screws with retaining washers/clips on each window post. Once these are removed on each side of the window, the window and frame unit can be pried out (to the inside) easily. (I have also seen a couple of firefighters do battle with a side window while trying to remove it from the outside. They lost.)

If two windows next to each other are removed and the post between them cut out, an 24- x 48-inch opening is created. This is referred to as a “picture window.”

• Front, rear, and door window removal: Each is mounted by way of a two piece rubber gasket. Removing the middle piece of rubber will release the tension on the mount, allowing the window glass to be pried out or pushed in, usually without breaking. Removing the glass by breaking it is always an option.

• Steering wheel displacement: Traditional techniques can be used, although the hood of most type C buses is made of fiberglass and will initially buckle under the chains if the traditional “column pull” is performed. A 4 x 4 used as an anchor point for chains outside the windshield frame works well.

• Seat removal: Seats may need to be removed to disentangle patients, to enter a bus through a sidewall, or to tunnel to victims. Removing the bolts that anchor the seat frame to the floor or cutting the frames at this point are the normal options. Removing the frame from the sidewall is best accomplished by removing the bolts, although it can be pried with spreaders or cut. Seats can sometimes be more difficult to remove than they appear.

• Roof opening: If a bus is on its side, there will probably be other access/egress points available. If this is not the case, the roof can be breached using a reciprocating saw or an air chisel. My experience is that the air chisel works best here. If a roof hatch is present, using it or enlarging it are options available to you.

Two types of openings can be made. One type, the “roof flap,” is made by locating a bow frame (look for the rivets) and vertically cutting the outside skin, just to the side of the bow, from as high as you can reach, down to the ground. A second parallel cut is made just to the side of the next bow, in the same fashion. A third cut is made horizontally at the top, connecting the two cuts. The exterior skin is “flapped” down and the inside skin is cut the same way. The only other member that needs to be cut is the roof crash rail, which will be running horizontally. The crash rail will need to be cut with a reciprocating saw or hydraulic cutters. This will provide an opening approximately 24 x 70 inches.

The other type, known as a “sunroof,” is made much the same way, except the width of two bow frames is cut from the roof. This entails making two roof flaps next to each other and removing the bow frame between them, providing a 48- x 70-inch opening.

• Rear section removal: In some situations, such as a rear end collision, it may be necessary to remove the section next to the rear door. This is a very difficult process, although it can be done. A better option may be to tunnel to the rear, removing seats as necessary. To remove the rear section, several key relief cuts must be made to be able to remove or displace the section. The areas that need relief cuts are at all points where the skin meets the rear corner post, the floor and the roof. Only then can the section be removed or displaced.

• Side section flap: This process is also a difficult one and should only be attempted as a last resort. If there is an easier way, do it. To begin a side section removal, first create a “picture window.” From there, use a reciprocating saw to cut from the window to the bench seat level or to the floor, depending upon how large an opening is required. This is done on both sides of the picture window. A relief cut is required on the bow frame in the middle of the section being removed. The location of the relief cut is at the seat level or floor level, depending upon which size opening you are creating. If you choose to flap the section to the floor, the seats will also need to be removed. When all cuts are made, clamping a spreader unit on the top of the section and pulling usually provides the leverage needed to flap the side down. If it will not flap, additional relief cuts may be required at the bottom of the section.

Incident Preparation

As indicated, these are very brief descriptions of the methods and techniques available to you. They are not all-inclusive and a little, or maybe a lot of, ingenuity will be required at every major incident. The key is to get out and actually gets some hands-on training before an incident occurs.

In addition to the knowledge and training you need to successfully mitigate an incident, you will also need the proper tools for the job. With the exception of a full set of hydraulic tools (spreaders, cutters, and rams), the tools required are neither specialized or expensive. They include reciprocating saws ($150 each), air chisel set ($500), hacksaws ($20 each), a full tool box ($500) and lots of blades. Other inexpensive items can also make the job easier, such as spray bottles and liquid soap mixed with water (to spray the blades with), spring-loaded center punches, air ratchets, and so on.


The possibility of being confronted with up to 100 patients, usually children, and the possibility of having some of them entrapped and/or entangled in the wreck of a school bus, along with the fact that a school bus is built unlike any other vehicle, will be overwhelming to even the most seasoned veteran. It is my hope that this article, your training, and your experience will lead to a safer emergency operation that will result in less suffering by the victims and the saving of lives. After all, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Leigh T. Hollins began his career in 1976 at Nottingham Fire Company in Hamilton Square, New Jersey. He relocated to Manatee County, Florida, in 1977. He is a battalion chief in the training division at Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue and vice president and director of Starfire Training Systems, Inc. Hollins is a Florida certified firefighter, EMT, fire inspector, fire officer, and fire instructor. He has a college degree in fire science, is the author of numerous fire-related articles, and produced Fire Engineering’s School Bus Extrication DVD. Hollins is a frequent instructor throughout the United States and at FDIC, the lead extrication instructor for FDIC’s Hands-On Training program, and a member of Fire Engineering’s and FDIC’s editorial advisory board. Hollins is a founding member and current president of The Sun Coast chapter of F.O.O.L.S. International, a fraternal organization for firefighters.

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